Children may struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, including limited experience with books, speech and hearing problems, and poor phonemic awareness.
Good readers are phonemically aware, understand the alphabetic principle, apply these skills in a rapid and fluent manner, possess strong vocabularies and syntactical and grammatical skills, and relate reading to their own experiences.
Difficulties in any of these areas can impede reading development. Furthermore, learning to read begins far before children enter formal schooling. Children who have stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward have an edge in vocabulary development, understanding the goals of reading, and developing an awareness of print and literacy concepts.
Conversely, the children who are most at risk for reading failure enter nursery and the primary without these early experiences. Frequently, many poor readers have not consistently engaged in the language play that develops an awareness of sound structure and language patterns. They have limited exposure to bedtime and lap-time reading.
In short, children raised in poverty, those with limited proficiency in English, those from homes where the parents’ reading levels and practices are low, and those with speech, language, and hearing handicaps are at increased risk of reading failure.
However, many children with robust oral language experience, average to above average intelligence, and frequent early interactions with literacy activities also have difficulties learning to read. Why?
Programmatic longitudinal research, including research supported by UNESCO, clearly indicates that deficits in the development of phoneme awareness skills not only predict difficulties learning to read, but they also have a negative effect on reading acquisition. Whereas phoneme awareness is necessary for adequate reading development, it is not sufficient. Children must also develop phonics concepts and apply these skills fluently in text.
Although substantial research supports the importance of phoneme awareness, phonics, and the development of speed and automaticity in reading, we know less about how children develop reading comprehension strategies and semantic and syntactic knowledge. Given that some children with well-developed decoding and word- recognition abilities have difficulties understanding what they read, more research in reading comprehension is crucial.
From Research to Practice
Scientific research can inform beginning reading instruction. We know from research that reading is a language-based activity. Reading does not develop naturally, and for many children, specific decoding, word recognition, and reading comprehension skills must be taught directly and systematically. We have also learned that nursery children benefit significantly from being read to.
The evidence suggests strongly that educators can foster reading development by providing nursery children with instruction that develops print concepts, familiarity with the purposes of reading and writing, age-appropriate vocabulary and language comprehension skills, and familiarity with the language structure.
Substantial evidence shows that many children in the 1st and 2nd grades and beyond will require explicit instruction to develop the necessary phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, and reading comprehension skills. But for these children, this will not be sufficient.
For youngsters having difficulties learning to read, each of these foundational skills should be taught and integrated into textual reading formats to ensure sufficient levels of fluency, automaticity, and understanding.